WHAT’S IN THE WATER? State Agriculture Officials Look at Innovation, not Regulation, to Protect Water Quality

By Stateside Associates

At this week’s National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) Winter Policy Conference, water policy issues took center stage among environmental concerns impacting the sector. While NASDA is no stranger to water quality – a long-standing priority for farmers and regulators alike – what stood out at this meeting was the focus on innovative policies that minimize regulatory challenges and enhance water quality.

In particular, discussion focused on voluntary approaches to water quality protection. While many aspects of today’s farms are regulated by the Clean Water Act as “point sources,” runoff from fields and pastures generally falls outside this definition. To help address this issue, states have been looking at ways to promote the use of voluntary Best Management Practices (BMPs) for agricultural lands. While the BMP concept itself is not new, some states are incentivizing participation in BMP programs by coupling participation with a presumption of compliance with state water quality requirements. States following this approach reported that farmers are embracing the concept because of the certainty the program creates. Some of the BMPs available include multi-cropping, new tillage practices and the use of advanced technologies to “right size” fertilizer application.

Building on this concept, some states reported they are also exploring the use of voluntary contracts between the landowner and state to provide even longer term certainty, so long as applicable BMP requirements are met.

Yet, while innovative programs are underway in some states, regulatory challenges remain. In particular, meeting attendees discussed U.S. EPA’s May 2013 deadline to comply with a new Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) requirement for farms. This requirement, which calls for certain farms with above or below ground oil or oil product tanks to prepare SPCC plans, has raised questions about the exact reach of the rule. In particular, the rule requires a plan from farms that could “reasonably be expected to discharge oil to navigable waters of the US or adjoining shorelines, such as lakes, rivers and streams.” While some guidance is provided regarding what this means, questions remains over exactly which farms are covered. At the meeting, NASDA members indicated an interest in seeing rule implementation delayed to allow time to address these issues.

These were just a few of the environmental topics taken up at the meeting, but they illustrate the work being undertaken by state officials to meet increasing global food demands in an environmentally responsible manner.

NASDA will next meet in September at its Annual Meeting in Asheville, North Carolina.

To view a complete list of Groups that have upcoming events visit http://www.stateside.com/groups/groups-schedule-by-organization/.

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